Q&A: Holly Ingeman — Civil disobedience examined in English class

Kerrigan Edwards

Q: What is it like teaching civil disobedience in a time like this?

A: This is a great time to teach civil disobedience. Many people are experiencing strong beliefs about many things right now. In many respects we will connect more with Thoreau than in years past. I ponder what I can do to make the world a better place. Thoreau chose to not pay his taxes and to live off the “grid.” That isn’t an option for me. I’d encourage students to think about what they can do to make the work a better place in support of their causes. I really connect with the idea of getting into “good trouble.” 

Q: What do your lessons look like surrounding the topic?

A: My lessons focus on Emerson and Thoreau. We read some of their pieces, discuss what they did to make a change, and think about what we believe. I end this with writing a belief statement or life creed based on NPR’s This I Believe… by Edward R Murrow. Murrow interviewed Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare and the McCarthy trials. 

Q: What is your student response usually like?

A: High school students seem engaged and connected to the ideas of civil disobedience. I appreciate that no matter what a student believes or where they land on the political spectrum, they can affect change for their causes. Listening to my students talk about what they believe about the world, gives me hope for our future. 

Q: How are you preparing for teaching it this year? What are your materials?

A:I am not sure how I will prepare this year. I am hoping we are not distance learning during that time. It is hard to hear the ideas of others and engage in good conversation/discussion if we are not in a room together. If we are together my plan is to read some pieces from the book and finish with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. It was written about Thoreau as a protest piece about the Vietnam War. I love how connected literature is to history. We will also read some short pieces about Gandhi and MLK Jr. If we are working remotely, I will have to consider a new plan. I follow many teachers on Instagram. They have great ideas for remote teaching. I will probably start there. 

Q: How would you define civil disobedience in your own words?

A: Working peacefully to social justice for marginalized communities is where I start to define civil disobedience. It is so much deeper than that. Am I willing to speak out? Stand up for others? Step in when it is necessary. I took part in a yearlong social justice class (attended one year and taught it another). I learned so much about the people in my community who need help. We visited the mission, the juvenile detention center, attended presentation about the death penalty, visited with Native communities, and so much more. It pushed me to think about my place in making the world a better place for other people.